DESERT EXPLORER

California Desert trips,interesting places to visit: ghost towns, old mines, lost treasure, personalities and bits of the old west

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The desert is sort of my second home. The places described below are special and worth visiting provided you know the story. That's what this blog is all about. Now I have tried as best I can to be factual but sometimes you hate to let facts get in the way of a good yarn.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Searles Lake

Searles Lake began its cosmic journey many years ago. A product of advancing and contracting sheets of ice that covered the Sierra Nevada Range during the last ice age or what some refer to as the late Pleistocene.

 Searles Lake occupies the center of Searles Valley, a northward-trending basin and range province located in southeastern California. The lake bed measures twelve miles in length by seven miles at its widest point, skirted on the west by the Argus Mountains, on the north and east by the Slate Range and on the south by the Summit and Lava Mountains.

 Hidden beneath the dry lake bed, in layers of mud that ran deep, rests a story of past climate changes ranging over thousands of years -- cycles that caused water levels to rise up, flow into an adjacent valley then fall back and evaporate.

 Core samples of the alluvium have given earth scientist information about climate changes that have taken place over the past 130,000 years. These samples reveal six climate cycles of varying durations each one lasting for thousands of years.


 During a pluvial or wet phase of a cycle, a cooler climate persisted causing an accumulation of snow and inducing glacial ice to thicken and advance down mountain canyons and across adjacent uplands. Most of the water and mud in Searles Lake came from foothills of the Sierra Nevada Range brought there by the Owens River during this phase of a cycle.

 During an inter-pluvial or dry phase of a cycle, water slowly evaporated from the lake leaving a salt crust over a mud base. So, at the end of each cycle, a layer of mud topped by a layer of salt -- layer by layer mud then salt continued to build until the last cycle ended around 6,000 years ago and ice sheets across the Sierra Nevada Range began to retreat for the last time.

 During wet phases of a cycle, water covered Searles Valley to a depth of hundreds of feet. On at least three occasions, it reached its maximum level (650 feet above the lake’s current elevation) and began filling neighboring Panamint Valley from a gap located at the south end of the Slate Range.

 During wet phases, of a cycle, a cascade of natural depressions, channels, runnels and other pathways extended south from Mono Lake -- to Owens Lake -- to Rose Valley -- to shallow fingers entering China Lake -- to Searles Lake and to Panamint Valley. Some believe that a lot of water during extreme periods caused wide-spread flooding that may have topped Wingate Pass and entered Death Valley.

 The south end of Searles Lake holds a forest of ghostly towers, spires, mounds, and ridges, known as the Trona Pinnacles – a place worth a visit. These otherworldly objects extend over 800 acres some topping 100 feet in height. A number of science fiction movies have been filmed here including Star Trek 5 and Planet of the Apes.

 The pinnacles issued from a chemical reaction between upwelling fresh spring water and highly mineralized lake water. When brought together under the right conditions they formed a calcium carbonate rock that geologist call tufa. It’s possible that organic microbes of various types mediated the mound building process during the wet phase of a cycle.


 Fossil Falls is part of this story also worth a visit. Twenty-thousand years ago, the Owens River began forging a new pathway through a gap in the Coso Lava Field – a basaltic table land that blocked the south end of Owens Valley. Over time, waters spilling over the falls forged a narrow defile or canyon.

 And over time, the falls receded to the north some three-hundred yards creating, in its wake, a spectacular series of deep crevices and a field of black pitted lava boulders. The falls have been dry for the past 10,000 years.

 At some future time, glacial ice will once again fill the steep canyons of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and streams will once again fill basins along the margins as the wet phase of a new climate cycle arrives.


 Trona Pinnacles: Look for sign on east side of Highway 178 as you enter Searles Valley from the south. Google Earth at 35 40.5; 117 23.8

 Fossil Falls: A maintained dirt road from Highway 395 leads to the falls located on Google Earth at 35 58.3; 117 54.6 ______________